Yesterday, President-elect Donald J. Trump announced his first staff appointments since his election victory, appointing Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff, and appointing Stephen Bannon as his Chief Strategist. These two were both thought to be strongly in the running for a position in the Trump administration and therefore their appointment is not much of a surprise, however, that Trump chose them to fulfil these roles does suggest a fair bit about the direction that his Presidency will take.
Throughout the election campaign, Trump spoke of his disdain for Washington insiders, and pledged that he would ‘drain the swamp’ of special interests and D.C. insiders. However, the appointment of Reince Priebus to such a key position flies straight in the face of this. Priebus is arguably the ultimate Washington (or at least GOP) insider. He has been chair of the RNC since 2011, and previously was RNC general counsel and chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, with his work for the GOP in Wisconsin meaning he has strong connections with the likes of Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Given Trump’s rhetoric around ‘draining the swamp’ of political insiders, you would have thought that the selection of Priebus to such a key role would have provoked anger amongst some of Trump’s most keen supporters — and you would be correct. However, the selection of Priebus could well have done a fair amount the placate those parts of the GOP who are extremely wary about the prospect of a Trump Presidency, given the extreme rhetoric that characterised his campaign. The feeling amongst moderate Republicans may well be that Priebus will add some moderation into Trump’s thinking, whilst his excellent relationships with Congressional leadership should help the Trump administration get their legislation through Congress — as long as it isn’t too extreme that is. Some have likened his role to that of Andy Card who served as White House Chief of Staff for five years during the George W. Bush administration.
Whilst he will have disappointed some of his most keen supporters with the hiring of party insider Priebus as Chief of Staff, Trump then hired the opposite for the role of Chief Strategist: Steve Bannon. Bannon is the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, the conservative news website, which aligns with the extreme ‘alt-right’ in much of its coverage. The appointment of Bannon is likely to worry much of the Republican establishment as he is an avowed enemy of Paul Ryan, and has led a campaign through Breitbart to unseat him as Speaker of the House. In addition, and very worryingly, he has long been criticised for pandering to white supremacism and the ‘alt-right’.
Media coverage of Bannon’s appointment has variously described him as being along the lines of a ‘right-wing provocateur’, and ‘anti-establishment populist’. Whilst these descriptions are both true, they don’t go far enough by any means. Following news of the appointment, John Weaver tweeted, “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.” Weaver is an experienced Republican strategist who held key roles on John Kasich campaign for the Presidency, and on John McCain’s campaigns in 2000 and 2008, so not simply a diehard liberal with a trivial complaint — Bannon genuinely is an extreme right-winger. This is why his appointment to Trump’s White House team has got people so worried.
Many people (in particular many Republicans) have brushed off the appointment of Bannon, and suggested that as Priebus technically holds the number one role on the White House staff, Bannon won’t hold much influence over policy. However, this is likely to be wrong. To go back to the comparison of Priebus with Andy Card, at the same time that Card was Chief of Staff, Karl Rove served as ‘Senior Advisor to the President’. This role was effectively the same as the Chief Strategist role which Bannon now fills. Everyone knows that although Card served as Bush’s gatekeeper, it was Karl Rove who had significantly more influence on the policy direction of the Bush administration. Although the appointment of Priebus and Bannon was accompanied by a description of the two as ‘equals’, don’t be surprised if Bannon has considerably more influence on policy direction than Priebus, with Priebus included more for his links with Congressional Republicans (which can help get Trump’s policy through Congress) than anything else.
Ultimately, the appointment of both Priebus and Bannon looks to be an attempt by Trump to straddle the divide between the Republican establishment and the populist wave which took him into the White House. This balancing act was evident this weekend as Trump alternated between tweeting about the constructive conversations that he’d had with GOP elders like John Kasich and Mitt Romney, and railing against the election coverage of the New York Times.
What side of the dividing line his policy will fall on is perhaps more uncertain.
However, the fact that he has chosen to appoint Bannon to a White House position at all, suggests that despite the more moderate notes which he has been trying to hit in recent days, Trump intends to pursue at least some of the right-wing populist policies which took him into the White House, perhaps even some of the most extreme ones. The appointment of Bannon should worry everyone, the world over.
The GOP has been totally split by this election, failure to reconcile its warring factions could result in its demise.
The campaign for the Republican nominee for President began in earnest on 23 March 2015, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced that he would be seeking the Republican nomination for President. One by one, other high-profile Republicans began to announce that they too would seek the nomination, including the likes of Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, and Lindsey Graham. In total, seventeen major candidates campaigned for the nomination, making it the largest single field in United States Presidential primary history.
Of course the ultimate winner of this process, and the person who I have deliberately chosen to refrain from mentioning just yet, was businessman and reality-television star Donald J. Trump.
When Trump announced his campaign for the Republican nomination with a press conference at Trump Tower, New York on 16 June 2015, few foresaw his victory, and even fewer foresaw the impact that Donald Trump would have on the wider Republican Party.
The nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee highlighted a huge fissure in the Republican Party between much of the party elite (Senators, Congressmen and women, and Governors) and the Republican base. Time after time, comments by Donald Trump were disavowed by senior Republicans, but party members kept on voting for him. There was seemingly nothing that those in Washington D.C. could do to stop the Trump Train, with establishment candidates like Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich unable to conjure any answer at all to the Trump surge.
This means that we have an election coming up in November where the candidate at the top of the ticket (Trump) is running on a hugely different platform to many of the Republicans lower down the ticket, who are running for seats in Congress, or on State Legislatures. It seems clear that the Republican Party is hugely divided, which isn’t going to help when it comes to competing in subsequent elections.
Now, all ostensibly ‘big-tent’ parties face internal divisions, and it isn’t this which is the problem. Divisions can exist within parties, as long as these divisions are reconciled to the extent that the party avoids a full blown civil war. We have seen this in the United Kingdom with the takeover of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn, causing a civil war between his faction and the so-called ‘Blairites’. Meanwhile, the governing Conservative Party are able to continue increasing their support, despite huge divisions of their own, simply because they prioritise power ahead of internal squabbles. The same is often true in the United States. The Democratic Primary Campaign showed that the Democrats also faced significant internal divisions, with the left-wing Bernie Sanders gaining huge support in his attempt at beating Hillary Clinton to the nomination. However, once Clinton won the nomination, the Democrats put much of this squabbling behind them because they recognised that winning the Presidency was more important than an ideologically pure political party.
The Republicans have manifestly failed to do this, and the Trump campaign can count on one hand the number of senior GOP lawmakers who are actively campaigning for him around the country. This is for a good reason, Trump has done absolutely nothing to gain the support of the party elite, and has instead chosen to shun them at every available opportunity by regularly making disparaging remarks about people like Jeb! Bush, John McCain, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the Democratic side, the Clinton campaign recognised the need to reach out to Bernie Sanders and those who supported him during the primaries, with the result being that Sanders has campaigned around the country on her behalf, leading to a much more comfortable election campaign. Trump on the other hand failed to do this, meaning that throughout the campaign he has been fighting on two frontiers: against the Democrats, and against the Republican Party elite. Given this situation, it is perhaps a miracle that he remains somewhat in contention for the Presidency at this late stage.
This being said, it remains unlikely that Donald Trump will win the Presidency next week. This leaves the Republican Party at a crossroads, where failure to choose the right path could easily result in the demise of the Grand Old Party — at least in the sense of the party being unable to compete for the Presidency.
In the Republican Party, this crossroads comprises two very distinct factions. One the one side, you have the moderates, the wing of the party which has dominated the Republican Party throughout most of its existence, particularly at the Presidential level. On the other side, you have what we’ll call the ‘Trumpists’, a movement which has effectively morphed out of the Tea Party movement which has come to the forefront of the Republican Party within the last ten years.
Assuming that Trump loses on 8 November, there are many from the moderate wing of the party who will feel that the Trump experiment has come to an end, and that they will be able to return to something resembling their prior more moderate ideology. However, this will be far easier said than done. The rhetoric emanating from Trump over the course of the campaign is that the election, and indeed the whole political system, is rigged. Therefore, Trump supporters are being primed to not accept the result of next week’s election. If this is the case, and Trump’s most keen supporters refuse to accept the result in significant numbers, then rebuilding the Republican Party of old could prove almost impossible.
The difficulties that the Republican Party face today have been a long time coming, with the grounds for these difficulties perhaps being set in 1980 when the Republicans returned to presidential power with Ronald Reagan.
This was done with an almost completely different electoral coalition than that which usually supported the Republicans, with Reagan’s supporters encompassing many evangelical Christians and white working-class ex-Democrats. These new party members were in sharp contrast to the existing pro-business conservatives who made up the Republican Party. More recently, these divisions have been manifested in the rise of the Tea Party movement, which mostly occurred during the 2010 midterms, although it could be said that the 2008 selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running-mate also helped to usher the Tea Party onto the national stage.
With the emergence of the Tea Party, the moderate wing of the GOP effectively lost control of the primary process. This has led to many Tea Party backed candidates winning Republican primaries and then getting trounced by their Democratic opponents in Congressional races (remember Christine O’Donnell?), although this being said there have also been many Tea Party backed candidates who have made it into Congress due to their standing in safe Republican seats. One of the most notable of these was Tea Party candidate Dave Brat who challenged then Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for his Congressional seat in Virginia in a primary prior to the 2014 midterms. In a huge upset, Brat defeated Cantor 55.5%-44.5%, and with this Cantor became the first ever House Majority Leader to lose his seat in a primary challenge.
The Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party, particularly in terms of their House of Representatives group, caused huge problems for the moderate party elite. It was effectively this that caused the resignation of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, with the Tea Party wing kicking up a huge fuss if Boehner so much as considered compromise with President Obama and the Democrats. This led to the Republican Party being forced to shift further to the right of the ideological spectrum in order to appease the Tea Party faction, and by extension the grassroots of the party. This has culminated in the election of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President, and what is effectively an existential crisis for the Republican Party.
Given that this Tea Party wing of the party is totally unelectable on the national stage then the answer would seem pretty straightforward. If asked the question: which way should the Republican Party go? then you would expect any rational person to suggest that they go the way of the moderates, i.e. those who have some chance of winning the Presidency. However, it is not that simple. Those who vote in the Republican primaries are the party grassroots, and as I said previously this group are on a completely different wavelength ideologically to those in the moderate wing of the party. It is these in the party grassroots who are relied upon to campaign when it comes around to elections, and so to a certain extent it is very important to be able to keep them onside. In addition, the problem is further complicated by the Conservative ideologues who populate the likes of Fox News, Breitbart, and Conservative talk radio. It is these individuals who effectively control much of the modern Republican Party and to whom Republican politicians are forced to pander if they wish to appeal to their grassroots supporters, indeed the Chief Executive of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign is Stephen Bannon who is on leave from Breitbart for the duration of the campaign. The likes of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, and radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Laura Ingraham have been particularly keen backers of Trump, and it is these people who set the tone in the modern Republican Party.
This group could soon include Trump himself, if he launches ‘Trump TV’. It has been suggested that his son-in-law and de-facto campaign manager, Jared Kushner, has been attempting to drum up support for this, although naturally when asked Kushner denied it. In any case, the Conservative media will go a long way to deciding which way the Republican Party goes. It seems extremely unlikely that following a Donald Trump loss, they will simply roll over and allow the moderates to take back the party. If anything, it is more likely for the Tea Party wing of the GOP to blame to moderates, and suggest that the party needs to shift even further right.
In short, there seems little chance that the two factions of the Republican Party will reconcile. What this means, is that they could instead split.
The possibility of a split in the party has been suggested by several high-profile moderate Republicans, perhaps most notably by Steve Schmidt who was a key advisor on George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, and who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign for the Presidency. In an interview with Vox, Schmidt said:
I think the Republican Party has an outstanding chance of fracturing. There will be the alt-right party; then there will be a center-right conservative party that has an opportunity to reach out, repair damage, and rebuild the brand over time. America, ideologically right now, is a centrist country — it used to be a center-right country — but it’s by no means a Bernie Sanders country. Not even close. The market will demand a center-right party.
There seems little doubt that a split like this would indeed be possible. If someone with no knowledge of American politics were to compare the views espoused by Donald Trump during his Presidential campaign with the views of some moderate Republicans, perhaps Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, then it would be unlikely that they’d guess that Trump was technically part of the same party as Flake and Kirk. This means that the landscape is ripe for a split, and it seems unlikely that either of the two factions would be particularly adverse to this outcome. Indeed, the aforementioned Flake has himself said that if the Republican Party doesn’t undergo a dramatic shift in policy and tone then they will consign themselves to “political oblivion”. Given that the grassroots supporters of the Republican Party won’t tolerate this kind of policy change, a split seems the only option.
However, the problem with a split is that it would be highly likely that it would end the possibility of a Republican being elected as President for a generation. The first-past-the-post electoral college system for electing the US President means that third-parties have almost no chance at all of gaining electoral votes. The effect of the Republican Party splitting would be that their vote would also be split, making a Republican President an impossibility.
A split would likely consign the Republican Party (and any new party) to the electoral dustbin. If the Republican Party is serious about winning the Presidency then it needs to unite and reconcile the more conservative wing of the party with the moderate wing. Because running on a moderate platform is the only way to win the Presidency. This particularly the case in modern America where demographic changes mean that the electoral map is skewed more and more in favour of the Democratic Party. The likes of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado tend to be touted as swing states, however statistically it looks as though it would be fair to classify these states as safe Democratic. Even Texas, once the bastion of Republican support, is turner bluer every year thanks to a rapidly increasing Hispanic population flexing its political muscles. These changes are making it more and more difficult for even a moderate Republican Party to win the Presidency, meaning that an ‘alt-right’/Tea Party Republican Party has absolutely no chance of national success.
As the aforementioned Steve Schmidt has said: “there’s no question that Republicans — as an institution and what we’re led by — are unfit to run the country, or to govern the country.” And he’s absolutely right. For rational, moderate voters, the Democrats are the only option. For liberals like myself this is great at first glance, but history shows that a lack of credible political opposition isn’t good for anyone, and ultimately leads to inefficient government.
For the Republicans the task is simple, they must take a more moderate path and stop obsessing about settled social issues that don’t concern the wider electorate. Failure to appeal to the wider election will result in the demise of the party of Lincoln, which is still affectionately known as the Grand Old Party.